Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chaucer: An Oxford Guide / Postcolonial Chaucer

The latest Studies in the Age of Chaucer has an appreciative review of Steve Ellis's Chaucer: An Oxford Guide, a volume to which I was a contributor. A proliferation of guides, companions, and introductions have burgeoned around Chaucer like microbes in the human genome. Each has a distinct personality (typically reflecting the temperament of its editor), and each is useful in its own way. The only guide I've used in my undergraduate classroom, however, is this one.

My students for the most part liked the volume. I paired major essays with various tales, and used the pieces as an entryway into each day's discussion. The essays invite readers into conversation, rather than lecture them with Things They Must Know Before Even Thinking About Studying Chaucer. The Guide enabled my class to understand how contemporary scholars analyze Chaucer's work. I was hoping that such familiarity would improve their own critical analyses (it mostly did). Oddly, the most beloved and most detested of the essays I assigned was Glenn Burger's on "Queer Theory," an essay that made several of them feel like their heads would explode. It's a dazzling study, centering around category confusion and medieval capitalism. The students who loved it were truly enamored: several then went off and read Burger's monograph Chaucer's Queer Nation, becoming hardcore Burgerphiles as well as protodeleuzians.

Chaucer: An Oxford Guide is composed of sophisticated essays that are also quite lucid. All were written for the book, and many contain significant new work. The range of topics covered is quite broad: from a nuanced overview of Chaucer's life and the limits of what this information allows in the interpretation of his works (Ruth Evans, connecting Chaucer to the scandals that haunt his biography, and usefully invoking parallels from Sylvia Plath to Paul de Man) to a nifty tour of the problems of editing Chaucer (Liz Scala at her best, witty and contrarian) ... even an overview of the genre of Chaucer handbooks.

Below, I excerpt a small piece from my own essay, 'Postcolonialism.' This section centers upon the Prioress's Tale, loss and remembrance.

In this closing section I would like to turn to a function that medieval studies has always shared with postcolonial theory: memorialization of that which might otherwise be forgotten. We live in a frightening and dangerous world, mainly because we human beings are so frightening and dangerous. But we are also creatures of history, both formed by the past and desirous of the past. Postcolonial critique refuses to see history as inert, and turns to what has gone before in order to remember it differently, less absolutely and less singularly – a way of seeing that isn't so much relativism as perspectivism.

In the tale told by the Prioress, a schoolboy decides to memorize a Latin hymn to Mary, an endeavor that necessitates neglecting his primer. In the religiously plural Asia that the 'litel clergeon' inhabits, the 'litel scole of Cristen folk … in which ther were / Children an heep' (495-97) performs an important differentiating function. That the children are 'ycomen of Cristen blood (497) may hint at a biological dimension to their community. Yet it is the 'litel scole' that imparts to the young pupils the culture and history that will ensure they know their difference from the 'Hebrayk peple' (560) of the 'Juerie,' as well as from the Muslims who apparently govern the land. In choosing the hymn over his primer, the young boy's act of rebellion is not all that subversive: his passion serves to remind the Christians of his unnamed city and the Christians of the Canterbury pilgrimage that a shared and timeless inheritance, codified in the song's Latin words, separates them from the rest of the world, renders them a people with an exclusive history, specially chosen and protected by God. The clergeon's worry over punishment at school is misplaced, for it is the nearby Jews through whose neighborhood he passes twice a day who will harm him, not his teachers. These very same Jews will, by the end of the tale, be tied to horses, dragged through the streets, and then hanged.

The ardor of the 'litel clergeon' for the Latin words which he does not fully understand is supposed to be admirable. Precocious sanctity should inspire exactly the kind of reverential awe that greets the ending of the 'Prioress's Tale' ('Whan seyd was al this miracle, every man / As sobre was that wonder was to se,' 691-92). Yet what happens when the ears through which the echoing hymn is heard are not Christian, but Jewish? Alma redemptoris ('nourishing [mother] of the redeemer'), the opening line of the clergeon's song, means little to a people whose sacred language is not Latin and whose messiah has not arrived. Cried 'ful murily' twice a day in passing through the ghetto (553), the hymn becomes an act of violence, announcing to its unwilling auditors that their religion, culture, and very identity have been superseded.

Postcolonial criticism encourages us to pay attention to how communities come into being and who is excluded. It asks us to listen with the other's ear and interrogate what is at stake when a body of knowledge is created, codified, promulgated as universal and peerless. The culmination of the 'Prioress's Tale' is the eradication of its Jews, leaving its narrative as empty of 'Hebrayk peple' at its close as the English nation was in Chaucer's day. What history is being remembered here, and what is being forgotten?

Though the action is set in ancient Asia, the Jews of the 'Prioress's Tale' are not as distant as they seem. England expelled its Jewish population in 1290, but rather than rid itself of anti-Semitism, the Jew who was no longer anywhere came to be everywhere. Jews were central to post-Expulsion 'English religious devotion and national identity,' an absent presence around which community solidified.' Once Jews no longer lived in England, their eradication was repeatedly performed figuratively, a repetition that demonstrates that violence committed long in the past can still trouble and haunt for many years, seeming to have happened 'but a litel while ago' (686). The Prioress ends her tale with an apostrophe to another boy martyr, Hugh of Lincoln, 'slayn also / With cursed Jewes' (684-85). Young Hugh's corpse had been discovered in a well almost 150 years earlier, but to an England that owed its sense of cohesiveness to the absence of its Jews, that death possessed an enduring vividness. The ideological uses to which his corpse was put can obscure the fact that a boy named Hugh really did perish, probably an accidental drowning, likely at the home of a Jewish friend. Because this death, all the more terrible because it claimed a child, was believed to be an act of murder, other innocents likewise lost their lives. According to Matthew Paris, the ringleader of the group of Jews who had supposedly crucified the boy as part of a secret ritual was tied to a horse, dragged and hanged -- exactly the punishment repeated on the Prioress's Jews. King Edward himself took a special interest in punishing the supposed malefactors; eighteen more Jews were eventually hanged as coconspirators.

Hugh of Lincoln's death and the violence that exploded around it harkens back to the first recorded accusation that Jews routinely kill Christian children, and the first attempt to create a boy martyr for communal reverence. When a boy named William was found dead in the woods outside Norwich in 1144, the grisly murder was blamed upon the local Jewish population. In this first instance of the blood libel, the accusation that Jews commit murder as part of their religious rituals, enough citizens of the city were sceptical of the charge not to attack their accused neighbors. Yet the boy's corpse was eventually interred in the cathedral and worshipped as a saint. Again, I would like to point out what is obvious but often overlooked in the scholarship attempting to analyze the significance of this episode: a young boy died horribly (gagged, stripped, tortured), and a demand is made that other innocents forfeit their lives in order to give some meaning – any meaning -- to this utterly senseless act. This makes William's fate similar not only to Hugh's, but also to that of another boy who died under terrible circumstances, this time at his own mother's hand. Unlike William, Hugh, and the nameless 'litel clergeon,' however, this boy was Jewish.

Besieged by Crusaders who, on their way to the Holy Land, decided that they ought not to spare God's domestic enemies, a group of Jews found themselves trapped inside the archbishop's palace at Mainz. Realizing that barred doors offered only some few moments of safety, these Jews chose to take their own lives rather than be forcefully baptized or hacked by Christian swords. Two surviving Hebrew chronicles narrate the martyrdoms of 1096. A chilling scene centers upon a mother named Rachel, who declares to her companions that her four children must predecease her so that the 'uncircumcised ones' will not convert them to their pseudo-faith.' As her friend takes a knife to her youngest boy and her two girls are cut in turn, Rachel realizes that her older son, Aaron, ought not to have witnessed his siblings' deaths because he is too young to face his own demise with resolve. 'Mother, Mother, do not slaughter me!' Aaron wails, then cowers beneath a bureau. Rachel
lifted her voice and called to her son: 'Aaron, Aaron, where are you? I shall not have pity or mercy on you either.' She pulled him by the leg from under the bureau, where he had hidden, and sacrificed him before the sublime and exalted God.

It is difficult not to see in Rachel a shocking coldness. As she announces to hidden, terrified Aaron exactly what fate she will inflict upon him, as she drags him by the leg from the only spot of safety he could find in this room flowing with blood, as Aaron pleads with his mother not to be cut open like his siblings, her actions seem inhuman … and that is exactly the point of the episode. Rachel's heroism resides for the chronicler in her ability to transcend human emotion and maternal attachment. Aaron is young and weak and human in order to ensure that his mother becomes timeless, a sublime example rather than a mere historical fact. Aaron, in other words, exists in that innocent space between infant insensibility and the adult ability to choose self-obliteration; he is able to feel the pain of martyrdom but horrifically unable to desire it. Aaron suffers so that his parents and his community accrue the glory of kiddush ha-Shem ('sanctification of the divine name'). The story in which he figures is not ultimately about him at all, but about his mother Rachel's sacrifice.

The Jewish choice of mass martyrdom over conversion shocked their Christian antagonists. Based upon the pioneering work of Israel J. Yuval, however, John McCulloh has argued that the fantasy that Jews ritually murder Christian children arose in the aftermath of the Rhineland Jews' choice of death for themselves and for their own offspring. I would go even further and argue that this spectacular choice to take one's life 'in the sanctification of God's name' and the flow of blood which resulted from these actions resulted in an enduring Christian fascination with Jews and sanguinary ritual. The violence that connects the 'litel clergeon' to Hugh of Lincoln, William of Norwich and Aaron of Mainz also binds together Christian and Jewish boys who did not and could not choose their own martyrdom. When childhood becomes the orientalized space of edenic purity, existing only so that adult ideologies can assert themselves, then lives are lost once again. Chaucer's eerily bloodless narrative of the 'litel clergeon' can hide in its conventionality the fact that behind its piety a flow of blood emanates from a boy who, when faced by an inflexible demand to suffer and die for an ideology he knows imperfectly, can answer back only the very human, 'Mother, Mother do not slaughter me!' If there is a historical voice that resonates after death in the 'Prioress's Tale,' it is indeed an innocent one, but it is also a hybrid one, speaking not just in Latin and in English but in Hebrew.

In the gruesome but highly literary demise of the 'litel clergeon' can be witnessed the historical deaths of three boys, two Christians and a Jew, whose furthest thought was martyrdom. I do not think that this knowledge makes the 'Prioress's Tale' unreadable, but it does inalterably transform the text. In the process it also illustrates well what postcolonial critique ultimately aims to do: not simply offer one more interpretation among many, but to alter profoundly the grounds upon which interpretation is conducted.


Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for the plug of this book, Jeffrey, as I will be teaching Chaucer for the first time since Fall 2003 next spring [how, as the only medievalist in my department I have escaped teaching Chaucer for almost 5 years is a long story, but has partly to do with a classicist colleague of mine, Nancy Ruff, who also teaches the class and I have opted out of it to teach more seminars], and the last time I taught it I relied heavily on what I call the "two Helens": Helen Cooper's "Oxford Guide to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales" [2nd ed.] and Helen Phillips's "An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales." of course, I threw in other readings from Burger's "Queer Nation," Lillian Bisson's "Chaucer and the Late Medieval World," Hansen's "Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender," Trigg's "Congenial Souls," etc. but the "two Helens" were my bedrock. I never had satisfactory [to my mind] critical essay for "The Prioress's Tale," but I can see that I do now [so thanks for writing it!]. Of course, you realize that there is so much "JJ Cohen" on all my syllabi that my students are starting to suspect something. Cheers, Eileen

dtkline said...

I want to thank you for this tidbit on the PrT as well, Jeffrey, particularly since I'm in the midst of writing on the tale myself. In particular I'm puzzling through a specific tension you identify: 'the hymn becomes an act of violence, announcing to its unwilling auditors that their religion, culture, and very identity have been superseded.' I'm trying to think through the PrT's supercessionism with the help of Jan Patozka's 'Fifth Heretical Essay' (and Derrida's riff on it in 'Gift of Death'), and it gets to that odd tension of abjection: Judaism is superceded but Christianity nonetheless remains indebted to and dependent upon the Judaism it continually must sacrifice. I dunno where it's quite going yet, but the exploration feels right so far.

You've drawn me out with this elegant reflection on children and violence in this postcolonial vein, and I appreciate it too.

Pedagogical note: I'm doing a 400-level Chaucer survey right now (selected tales and T&C) and I'm using Cooper's 'Oxford Guide' and Ellis's 'Oxford Guide' both, the first for it's solid guidance into formalist concerns, the second (as JJC says) for what scholars are doing now. It's a terrific mix.

dtkline said...

Oops, a quick second note and K'zoo plug: The first English edition of Derrida's 'Gift of Death' did not include the final chapter in the French edition, and the English translation was slated to come out this spring from UChicago but the last time I checked has been delayed? Sandy Goodhart (see his _Sacrificing Commentary_) and Tavi Gabor will be presenting at the Akedah session, and their paper revolves around their earlier attempt to translate this untranslated chapter and the productive questions that arose in that task--which they will bring to the Genesis 22 text. Should be interesting.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

When childhood becomes the orientalized space of edenic purity, existing only so that adult ideologies can assert themselves, then lives are lost once again.

The perfect serendipitious find for me this morning - bringing together two fractions of my current world. My desire to do something about re-remembering 1190 comes precisely out of a dissatisfaction with the conventional ways in which I currently find myself doing every year. It is that moment when I have to talk about the knife and the child which is both so effective for an audience and yet also troubling for its reductionism.

In my 3 minute spot I never feel I have the time that do more than repeat the chroniclers' accounts as if the past and our knowledge of it was uncomplicated. I always feel that is a triple disservice to the people of 1190, to the radio audience and to my profession.

3 minutes is a cruel slot to fill. 3 days will enable us to do so much more, but I still want to get a new 3 minutes out of it in the end.

Karl Steel said...

I'm fond as hell of this reading, JJC. I looked at my Ellis for commentary, and what I found was a lot of underlining and marginal stars and NB's.


DTK: on that pedagogical note, and to continue a conversation we had here some time back: are you having your studies buy the Cooper and Ellis in addition to whatever Chaucer you're using? If so, I couldn't do that. For the Ch CT class I'm doing now, I had them buy only the Fisher and Allen (which I'm loving), but since used copies are currently hard to get hold of, I couldn't justify assigning more books (esp because Ellis, even used, is around $30, and likewise the Cooper). So for secondary reading I've been reduced (?) to assigning articles from jstor, proquest, &c, which at least helps them get their feet wet in the wading away from Wikipedia...

dtkline said...

Karl - I have them buy Cooper (if they can) and recommend Ellis, but I have an extra copy of each myself that I put on reserve so that folks can read or copy as they need to. It's pricey, I know, but most of the folks in my 400 level survey have been the type who hold on to their texts. I never penalize anyone for not buying the material because the grades depend more upon writing than testing.

I've polled my Chaucer classes in the past about whether they benefit more from looking at individual articles (from online databases or ones I put on our Bb website) or anthologies, and most often they say they like the single weighty volume. I go back and forth myself and never seem to find a simple solution. I have at times used Beidler's theory & Wife of Bath volume (instead of the more recent Ellis) and that's worked well also.

On another note, does anyone have experience with Jill Mann's new Penguin edition? It's very inexpensive but the flimsy paperback gives me visions of broken spines and fluttering leaves falling from the binding.

Rob Barrett said...


I used Mann's Penguin CT the last time I taught Chaucer. The book got the snot beaten out of it by the end of the semester, but the binding didn't break. It helped that I didn't bother to write notes in the text--most of my notes are now typed up.

I'm scheduled to teach Chaucer in Spring 2009, and I'm thinking about teaching some of the dream visions and the Troilus as well as a selection of the CT. If I do this, I'll be getting the Norton Critical Edition three-pack--which appears to be $30 for all three texts.

Karl Steel said...

Dan and Rob: thanks for the hints and tips. It's exactly the kind of advice I need.